Posted on January 6, 2008 - by MG
Well, me hearties, I finally did it; I finally managed to achieve a state of Zen-like chilled-outedness that had eluded me for the best part of last year. This was achieved by two months of not writing, no business meetings, minimal school governor business, and then two weeks of seclusion in our little world of Oxford-over-Christmas-and-New-Year.
I read books! I saw movies at the cinema (3 this year so far!)
People can tell you what they like about writing but eventually to get down to planning and writing a novel, most writers I know need to achieve a state of separation from the world. You can do that by breaking a leg and living in your bedroom for 3 months, visited only by your immediate family. You can go to that Greek island where creative types take off to…can’t remember the name. Or you can retreat down to your writing shed in the garden, like the likes of Pullman and Isabel Allende, to be left in peace and quiet for hours a day.
It helps to have no friends while this is going on.
It helps to have pretty much nothing else going on whilst this is going on.
There are people who write around full-time jobs but I could NEVER have done it. I read the first ‘Harry Potter’ in the year I had just started our IT business and knew two things for a fact:
1) it was the kind of exciting, twisty-turny children’s story I would love to write
2) there was no way I could write any kind of story right then – my mind was fully booked.
I might actually finish a whole book by the end of this week – “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It’s almost unput-downable, but for the charmingly idiosyncratic narrative voice, which I find I need breaks from every now and then. Having a story narrated by Death (he of the scythe, cowl and chess-play) makes for many spoiled endings. Forget ‘little-did-he-know’ – this narrator (Death, did I mention?) relishes spoiling the readers fun, knowing that they will read on anyway:
“Of course I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggrvate, perplex, interest and astound me.”
That puts me in mind of an interesting debate over at Litopia After Dark, a podcast for the discussion of writing by writers, authors and publishers. Is Story Dead? As in – the linear story, with beginning, middle and end – is that getting a bit passe? Does it really matter if the reader/audience knows the ending all along?
Old-school screenplay-writing gurus like Robert McKee urge writers to put massive effort into their endings. It can make or break a film, in McKee’s opinion. He gives the example of Blade Runner, which McKee feels was demoted from mega-blockbuster (which is what it should have been) to cultish hit, because the ending didn’t satisfy. The audience’s sympathy (reckons McKee) is ultimately with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader. Yet Batty is allowed to die whilst the weaker character – Rick Deckard – gets to live.
Well, maybe. The director Ridley Scott might feel it had something to do with the fact that the studio messed about with his editing.
My take on story as a (former) biologist is this:
The elements of story have been reverse engineered by analysing what is shared by narratives that succeed.
The first to write about this, so far as we know, was Aristotle, who had his students analyse the best works from of decades of Greek theatre. And just as he did for the natural world, Aristotle looked for patterns and wrote up his results in the Poetics.
Why do all successful stories share key elements?
It can only be because the brain is hardwired to take in information in particular ways. And evolution has detemined that what we call ‘STORY’ is the best way to reach people, to inform and educate them in such a way that the information sticks.
So it doesn’t really matter if you tell me a story with the ending first, then the beginning and then the middle. Because the brain will anyhow sort the information into the correct order in the background. In effect you are still telling me a story in the same old way, but you are giving my brain an extra step – a little puzzle.
That doesn’t mean that story is dead.
Ninety minutes where nothing happens and no-one changes…now if you can get people to enjoy that, then maybe you have dispensed with story.
Otherwise you’re just being postmodern, playing games with narratives and intertextuality and all that. You haven’t killed story. You’ve just found a way to wring a few more drops out of the form. Or maybe you’ve found a way to distract your reader or audience from the fact that actually…your story ain’t that good.